The War Nerd: The Duke of Petraeus Effect
So Petraeus had an affair with Paula Broadwell, the “biographer” who followed him around the world writing her Ph.D. thesis on him. There’s a shocker. Who’d have thought an obsessed military groupie would let it get physical?
Research, you could call it, I guess. Broadwell had a great comment on working with Petraeus: “I took full advantage of his open-door policy to seek insight and share perspectives.”
Is that what y’all are calling it these days, “sharing perspectives”? Going all Euclidean on us.
There’s absolutely zero to be shocked about that Broadwell went for the conqueror, the winning general. That’s what it’s always been all about, down the centuries and across the Risk board. If Genghis Khan had been in the room, Petraeus would have been dumped faster than a Texas liberal. Now you may want to say that Petraeus hasn’t exactly scored one of the great military victories in history, and I’m with you on that. All he did was use his Counterinsurgency 101 readings to start basic, obvious CI tactics in Iraq, because, unbelievable as it might seem, we had none, none whatsoever, until he started the Surge.
Still, that was more than enough for the US press to make him the best thing since Belisarius. And it’s what the tribe thinks of you that decides whether you get the women. It’s even more fundamental; when a general thinks he won, his testosterone count zooms. That’s biochemical fact, whether it fits your squeamish notions or not. Turns out that even fat losers’ male-jelly counts go up when their pro sports team wins.
The classic story from military history comes from the diary of the Duchess of Marlborough, who wrote that when hubby got home after kicking ass at the Battle of Blenheim, “The Duke returned from the wars today and pleasured me twice in his top boots.”
This is now officially the “Duke of Marlborough Effect,” although who knows? Maybe twice was an off day for the Duke.
The most amazing thing about that story is that it was his own lawful wedded wife the Duke “pleasured.” That’s not the way it usually works in military history. If we’re being honest, the whole consent issue is not a feature of classic warfare rules. In fact, I believe our friend Genghis Khan had something to say on the subject:
“The greatest pleasure is to vanquish your enemies and chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth and see those dear to them bathed in tears, to ride their horses and clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.”
When you’re considering the viewpoint of Genghis and other pre-Victorian commanders, you’ll note that the horses get priority over the women, and that the first order of business, before either one of these recreational pursuits, is to “chase [the enemy] before you”; not exactly business before pleasure, because the enemy-routing is both, but a ranking in importance: first, the killing, then the horse looting, then, and only then, the sex part.
The first time I know of that anybody even expected a general to behave like a decent little husband was Wellington. It was 1824 and the whole disgusting Victorian morality thing was gaining ground, making everybody stupider and a bigger liar, and this sleazoid publisher wrote Wellington from Paris to say that he was about to put out the memoirs of a high-priced whore called Hariette Wilson. Wellington had been one of her customers in his younger days, and in the new “moral” times that was gonna be a problem. The letter was a classic of polite blackmail:
"My Lord Duke, in Harriette Wilson's Memoirs, which I am about to publish, are various anecdotes of Your Grace which it would be most desirable to withhold, at least such is my opinion. I have stopped the Press for the moment, but as the publication will take place next week, little delay can necessarily take place."
This little scam had already earned Harriette and her publisher big money. They sent the same form letter to every Lord in England, and most of them paid up with no quibbles. But then, they weren’t the guy who was credited with winning at Waterloo. (It’s not exactly true that Wellington won there; closer to the truth to say Blucher saved his ass when he was getting stomped, but whatever, he got the credit.) And as a winning general, Wellington got a pass on all this new morality nonsense. So he did what these mere civilian celebrities couldn’t do: he sent the publisher a nice, brief letter: “Publish and be damned.”
They did publish, too, and carried on a little war of their own in print. In the first edition of Harriete’s memoirs, she or her ghost-writer publisher called Wellington a “faithful lover, whose love survived six winters,” but in the second edition, after the stingy bastard had refused to pay up like a good sport, she basically said she faked all the “pleasurings,” just like a divorced Bakersfield wife, basically using the ol’ “your dick’s too small and you can’t fuck” approach, with hints like “most unentertaining” and “very uphill work.” I especially like that “uphill work” line: “Jeez, Duke, gimme a little cooperation here, whaddaya want, want me to pretend I’m French or something? ‘Oh Monsieur Le Conquering Englishman! Please spare me with your rough hands…’ Would that help, ya floppy loser?”
This whole “morality” thing has been getting worse and worse since Wellington’s time, to the point that most conquerors have to pretend they’re model husbands, the soul of monogamy. Take Eisenhower. Ike might have seemed like pure Prairie hick, but he had a “chauffeur” named Kay Summersby who happened to be a former fashion model.
Folks kinda noticed when Ike showed up at conferences and instead of an unshaved GI, the driver who opened his door for him was this gorgeous brunette. FDR himself wrote a gossipy letter to his daughter whispering that Ike was “sleeping with his attractive driver.”
It was fine for Eisenhower to do that as a victorious general, because the old rules still applied, more or less: “Just win, baby,” as Al Davis would say, and you can do what you want in bed. But when Ike ran for president, he was in the American political world, where you have to pretend you’re a cheesy churchgoing sitcom husband, and his affair with Summersby was suddenly radioactive. In fact, when the GOP threatened to hint that the Democratic nominee, Stevenson, was gay, some Dem operative with guts—must’ve been the last of the breed—said, “Oh yeah? Want us to tell the voters about Ike and the driver?” and the Republican dirty-tricks operation closed down that little plan for good.
If the Dems had sprung their plan to expose Ike’s affair, it really would have sunk him because not only was he an adulterer, he was an impotent one. Summersby said in a book she published after Eisenhower was safely dead that he’d been unable to get it up for most of the war, so they stuck to what folks in those days called “heavy petting.” You have to wonder if the bedroom difficulties had anything to do with doubts about victory, and whether Ike had his own Duke of Marlorough Effect after Normandy came off. If he did, Kay wasn’t saying. Just like Harriette, she basically panned her general, bed-wise.
While we’re worrying about the possibility that our leading general might not be the perfect Patrick Swayze from Ghost husband, faithful both before, during, and after death, a big chunk of the rest of the world is still playing by the old rules, which say that defeat implies consent and the winner can screw anything he wants. That’s definitely the rule in Afghanistan, where the Pashtun prefer boys for their sex objects. What finally brought the Taliban into power in Kandahar was two Mujahid warlords fighting over a boy. They were blasting the city to waist-high rubble, all because both of them wanted the same pimply brat, and people got sick of it. Next thing you know, Mullah Omar’s telling you what haircut you can have. Sex: nuthin’ but trouble.
Most of the old war stories have sex as the villain, the factor that sends good commanders wacky and that starts dangerous wars in the first place.
I lived in that old world last year, in provincial Saudi Arabia, and I swear to God if you want an insight into the so-called “classics,” the way the ancient Greeks thought, you should move to some dustbowl town in the Muslim world. There was one mall in this town, and it banned young men for certain days because of the fear they’d look at a girl from another clan. Not that they’d have seen much, because every female over ten had to wear the full niqab and hijab, but even a look was enough to start the killing, and believe me, that Romeo and Juliet stuff isn’t so cute when it’s for real.
One of my students had a brother purposely run over by a rival clan because of a grudge that dated back to the time his brother supposedly talked to a girl in the HyperPanda, the big supermarket at the mall. That’s more than enough to start the killing, and the girl’s views on the boy have zero to do with it. She may like the Hell out of him; that just makes it worse, and increases the likelihood she’ll be killed along with the boy who dared to talk to her.
Now think of that same attitude with the oldest war story of all, the Iliad. Paris likes Helen; Helen likes Paris. In our recent little world, that’s fine; they go off together and start a vineyard in Napa County, yay hooray. In the classical war rules, “like” has nothing to do with it. Paris starts the war by giving in to his “liking” for Helen; he’s much more guilty than she is because her “liking” for him isn’t even a factor, doesn’t even count. And unlike California, in the classical world lust is bad, except when it makes legitimate children, preferably male. Other than that, lust is very, very dangerous and bad. Doesn’t make you a man—makes you less of a man.
Paris is not only the villain in this story because he thinks more about sex than he does about war, he’s a sissy, by classical terms, for thinking more about sex than the good of the clan. He wants Helen, steals her from her husband—which she’s totally OK with—and that starts a war that ends up with his hometown in ruins and all his relatives dead or sold into slavery. That’s what an out-of-control sex organ does to you, the way Homer saw it. I remember when I first read that book I was surprised to see that Paris was a sissy because he was horny. That wasn’t the way people in California thought about it at all, but it’s definitely the way the Greeks saw it.
On the Greek side, Achilles does something kind of similar when he goes into a mid-season sulk because Agamemnon pulls rank, as boss of the whole force, and steals Achilles’ favorite slave girl from him. That episode is a little more complicated, though. The real moral is that when you’ve stolen the daughter of a priest of Apollo, and he comes to ask nice for her back, you give her back. No use getting in trouble with the gods. The other lesson is that chieftans on the same side have to stick together even if they hate each others’ guts like Agamemnon and Achilles do. Sex is one of the biggest threats to force cohesion, which Homer kind of dramatizes by having Achilles pout in his tent while the Greeks, playing without their franchise swordsman, get slaughtered by the Trojans.
Just to drive the point home, if you’ll pardon my Greek, Homer adds another episode to prove that it’s not just women getting in the way. Achilles has this, uh, friend, Patroclus, who I think was the ancestor of Spongebob’s friend Patrick—who also had gay rumors, from what I remember—and Patroclus, seeing his team get skewered by the Trojans, asks his chum Achilles if he can at least borrow the big guy’s armor and go fight. Achilles lets him have the gear, still sulking, and Patroclus goes out and gets himself killed.
It’s a perfect moral to the story: If you let sex and jealousy get in the way, you end up having the people you should actually care about killed. That’s what happens to Paris when he elopes with Helen; that’s what happens to Achilles when he sulks about his slave girl. What finally brings Achilles back into the war effort is when his boyfriend is killed by the enemy. It’s a wakeup call, because now his horniness is aligned properly toward revenge and killing the enemy.
The old world has a lot more momentum left than we usually feel good admitting. That’s really what’s going on in the Petraeus story, once you filter out the DC gossip: the old rules meeting whatever we’re calling the new ones. I don’t take any stock in the “security” issue. The CIA is OK with pretty much any kind of sex these days; if you’re gay or bi, you have to tell your folks, but otherwise it’s let’s have fun. So the fact that Petraeus is banging somebody he’s not officially married to shouldn’t matter. It does, because he’s violated our new tribal rules that even a conqueror (or a guy who passes for one cuz we don’t have anybody better) has to be the perfect faithful husband.
The funny thing about it is, just like the classical rules, “consent” isn’t an issue this time either, because our new tribal rules have been broken. Nobody disagrees that Petraeus liked Broadwell and Broadwell (jeez, what a James Bond name for the girl in the picksher) wanted him, to the point that she sent “threatening emails” to a woman she thought might be cutting in on her with him.
But damn, just like the Saudis, just like the Achaeans, nobody cares about that. Our little rules, or fantasies, about Victorian husbands got bruised, and they’re both going down for it.